Janie Grace has two overwhelming priorities-to devise and implement a digital strategy that will be supported by her shareholders and to ensure that CiTV’s main schedule is in tune with an audience spoilt for choice as never before.
This means stronger factual fare, putting more kids on screen, beefing up drama and devising a schedule with something in it for older children, a segment of the audience previously neglected by CiTV.
It’s a tough order. Competition for the U.K. kids audience has never been keener. The BBC’s plans for two digital kids nets are well underway. Disney recently upped the ante further by announcing it will go head-to-head with CiTV and CBBC by screening a new after-school tween strand. Meanwhile, ITV’s two main owners, Granada and Carlton, are keeping a tight leash on budgets as the advertising slowdown continues to bite.
Grace, who succeeded Nigel Pickard as controller of CiTV last fall, knows she has a fight on her hands, but she brings more than 20 years experience with her, most recently as managing director of Nickelodeon UK. There she launched preschool net Nick Jr. and commissioned several hits, including Renford Rejects, Blues Clues, Kid Nation and current affairs offering Nick News.
‘One reason I took this job is because I saw huge potential,’ she says. ‘It is no secret that as far as kids are concerned, ITV has still got one foot in the past. Technology has changed. CiTV has not. The programs have kept up to date. They’re competitive and they’re excellent, but our provision for kids has not changed. So I thought there was an opportunity to grow a kids business from a very, very solid base. ITV just needs to understand how kids are behaving in a multichannel world. Kids are technological pioneers.’
Since arriving at ITV, one of her proudest achievements has been to invest in Sitting Ducks, the Universal series created by Michael Bedard. The Sitting Ducks book occupies one of the few clear surfaces in Grace’s lair, where paperwork, books and soft toys threaten to engulf her. ‘Sitting Ducks is edgy and funny. . . Kids will love it,’ she reckons, opening a page. ‘Look at the shading. Isn’t it wonderful?’
Grace’s enthusiasm and passion for children’s TV is obvious, but will it be enough to get ITV back on terms with its better-resourced historic rival the BBC in the digital race? ITV spends around US$66 million a year on kids, around half the Beeb’s newly enhanced budget.
It is no secret that Grace is devising a strategy that may involve a dedicated CiTV channel, but when questioned about it, she makes it apparent that much is up in the air. ‘I would hope that I can persuade ITV and its shareholders that kids are a valuable audience if you are running a bouquet of channels on any platform,’ Grace observes, choosing her words carefully. ‘I don’t know if a channel is the right answer. We have to look at the economics and viewer behavior very carefully. You have to go wherever the kids are leading you. If we find out that they want to be entertained on our website, we shall be putting resources into programming that starts on the website that we might then be able to develop for TV.’
In terms of paying for expanded media reach, Grace feels confident that she can keep the pricetag down. ‘There is an opportunity cost. I don’t know whether that investment can be more than the annual current spend. I would hope so. I know how to run low-cost operating models. I’ve done it before and I’d like to do it again.’
So this much is clear: The bottom line is that provided the numbers stack up, Grace wants to have other outlets for CiTV’s content (currently around 12 hours a week) and is hampered by the fact that, at present, she only has very restricted space on one channel, while rivals are broadcasting dedicated services on digital platforms.
If the digital picture is hazy, with the BBC and other dedicated services like Nickelodeon and Disney way ahead, the performance of Grace’s core business, the CiTV schedule, represents a more positive prospect. Her decision to strip the weekday afternoon block of shows has paid dividends. CiTV claims it is now more than 6% ahead of the BBC. ‘Without a doubt, stripping works,’ Grace insists. ‘That’s how kids prefer to watch these days.’
CiTV’s biggest triumph against the pubcaster is its Saturday morning show SM:TV Live, which has forced the rival BBC1 show Live and Kicking out of business. But Grace knows there is work to be done here as well. Pickard is a formidable operator (he masterminded SM:TV), and it’s shaping up to be a fascinating fall, with the BBC launching a new Saturday morning offering and CiTV having to adjust SM:TV to take account of the departure of its hugely popular hosts, Ant and Dec.
Overall, Grace thinks CiTV has tended to be risk-averse and has not done enough to cater to the tween audience. ‘My two predecessors thought that CiTV should ignore the 11-plus audience. This effectively meant that nothing got made for children over nine. I don’t hold with that. Although it is difficult in the time we have available to us, it has meant that the schedule is rather young, soft and safe-and too obsessed with ratings. Our kids need programming across the genres and across the age groups. I am going to broaden out at the margin.’
With her commitment to offering audiences genuine diversity, Grace has commissioned Granada to make a new, five-part factual series planned for next year, plus two new live-actioners: a spooky comedy called Strange Tales, written by Kirsty Falkous (author of My Parents Are Aliens); and a five-part adaptation of Girls In Love, a book written by U.K. children’s author Jacqueline Wilson, who specializes in writing about social issues.
‘When you chase ratings,’ Grace adds, ‘you inevitably miss a large portion of the kid audience because there’s a tendency to play it safe. If you alienate older girls and boys, you’ve only got half your audience. To me it’s common sense to serve the entire demographic and take risks. You have the right to fail, and only if you exercise that right will you actually win.’